Research-engaged schools

Written by: HTU | Published:

Dr Raphael Wilkins reflects on the benefits for schools of being ‘research-engaged’ and argues that headteachers must embrace research and collaboration as part of school and staff development

Often headteachers say that they want to strengthen, or deepen, the professional culture of their school. There are four elements to this: talking about practice, professional reading, writing about practice, and becoming research-engaged. It is not normally practicable, however, for these to be planned and implemented as a conscious, logical sequence: deepening of professional cultures is usually a result of piecemeal, opportunistic developments that happen where conditions are conducive.

Managerial vs professional orientation

A prerequisite for any strategies to strengthen professional culture is, of course, a preference for a professional rather than managerial orientation towards the leadership of teachers.

School leaders inclined towards a managerial orientation will see teachers as “operatives”, needing strong direction and control through line management, focused on improving certain narrowly defined performance indicators in ways which help “management” to achieve its objectives. In this perspective, professional development is the training needed to correct deficiencies identified by management.

As “operatives”, high turnover among teachers is to be expected, as those who do not meet management’s expectations are “managed out” of the organisation. Creativity, independent thinking and research by teachers are not encouraged: anything they need to know is best cascaded down to them by management, or at least must be focused sharply on set priorities.

By contrast, school leaders inclined towards a professional orientation will see teachers as self-motivated professionals, mutually inspired and supported through peer-group interactions, having a broad view of their educational role, and using their own initiative and creativity to refine continually their teaching skills.

In this perspective, “professional development” is an integral part of being a teacher. The commitment of teachers beyond the short term to the community of children and their families, and to the organisation as a whole, is assumed, valued and reciprocated by leaders. Creative thinking and research by teachers are largely self-directed, broad in scope, encouraged and supported by leaders, and may be expected, over time, to take forward the school’s thinking on questions such as “what is a good education?”.

These are only caricatures, of course, representing extreme ends of a continuum. Unless a school is staffed by angels, management does indeed need to manage. While leaders may believe that the professional model is what ought to prevail, in most schools a prolonged and complex process of organisation development is necessary to bring it about. Teachers are, nevertheless, perceptive regarding the messages that school leaders convey about their positioning on this continuum. A shift towards the professional model is necessary for developing professional culture, but it has to be genuinely underpinned by beliefs and values.

Professional conversations

The development of professional culture through informed dialogue is dependent on the acceptance of a range of viewpoints and opinions, otherwise the parties to the dialogue might just as well talk to themselves. Schools move through different phases of development. One such journey is from intervention and turnaround, to fragile recovery, to steady improvement, to excellent system leadership. Generally, it is realistic to predict that tolerance of different viewpoints will increase as that journey proceeds. Assuming the school can create spaces for staff to talk frankly and reflectively about their professional practice, what will enhance the conversation from “saloon bar” to “professional”?

Telling the story four times

Professional reading (see below) goes a good way towards helping teachers to find a voice, and this can be developed further by “telling the story four times”. This technique addresses the four main questions of interest to the listener:

- What took place? (the narrative)
- What were the dynamics of the change? (the process)
- Why should anyone believe you? (the “truth value”)
- Would this change work in my situation? (transferability)

This technique is most easily developed by a teacher volunteering to talk about a project they have been working on involving a change or development, and another person taking the role of interviewer. The interviewer starts by asking the teacher to tell the story of what they have done, using prompts to cover the background, intended outcomes, strands of activity, actual outcomes, what has been learnt, and so on. In normal circumstances, that might be the end of the conversation.

For the next level of analysis, the interviewer guides the ‘narrator’ through the story again, concentrating on the dynamics of change, using any of a range of possible theoretical frameworks. An example would be the Villa and Thousand (1995) model of five essential elements of change, and the consequences of the absence of each:

- Vision (without which, confusion)
- Skills (without which, anxiety)
- Incentives (without which, resistance)
- Resources (without which, frustration)
- Action planning (without which, false starts)
In the third telling of the story, the interviewer explores the truth value of the account, using the “new validities” of Anderson and Herr (1999):

- Outcome validity: were problems solved?
- Process validity: was learning facilitated?
- Democratic validity: were stakeholders involved?
- Catalytic validity: were participants energised?
- Dialogic validity: do others involved agree with the conclusions?

The final analytical level of conversation concerns the applicability of the narrative to other situations. Here, the probing questions will depend on the context and the nature of the development reported. They will need to explore the particular characteristics of the context, the individuals involved, the organisational dynamics, the supports and obstacles, and any other factors relevant to a listener evaluating what they can take from the story.

Professional reading

Two ways to support professional reading are to provide a staff reference library, and to run a reading group. The latter simply involves inviting the participants to read a chosen chapter, article or report, and then to meet to discuss it. At first, teachers often find it hard not to regard the text reverently as expert words which must be absorbed, and to feel any mismatch with their own views as somehow their own shortcoming. Gradually the group will develop criticality, and enjoy a cut and thrust debate with the writer’s claims and standpoint, while clarifying their own.

Professional writing

Professional writing most often takes place where teachers are producing assignments for a higher degree course; or where the school has been involved in an externally supported development project for which a report is required; or where the school is research-engaged, in which case teachers may be writing for conference presentations and publications, as well as for their colleagues and their own pleasure. The techniques above for adding depth to professional conversation also apply to writing.

Additionally, teachers writing about their practice need to be conscious of the different genres and use them in a structured way. Normally an article includes several different genres: because each has its own authority base, and invites the reader to different kinds of critical interaction.

Research engagement

In Research Engagement for School Development (Wilkins 2011), I tell the story of how, over the last 10 years or so, some schools have strengthened and deepened their professional culture by evolving into what is becoming known as “research-engaged schools” (a term coined by Handscomb and MacBeath, 2003). A research-engaged school draws critically and selectively on published educational research; conducts its own good quality practitioner research; is happy to be researched; has an outward-facing orientation; and is in the driving seat of these developments.

There is nothing new about school-based research: the new elements in the research-engaged school are the use of external research, and a shift from the involvement of a few keen individuals, to the official, institutional adoption of research-engagement as a matter of policy and strategy.

Jane was the headteacher of an infant and nursery school. She and her staff investigated the expectations of new parents about the education their children would receive in the nursery. Both the process and the findings had a profound impact on school practice. The research was informed by the Epstein model of school, family and community partnership (Epstein et al, 1997), and it adopted the action research methodology so that actual changes were introduced step-by-step throughout the period of investigation as well as subsequently. Numerous specific factors were explored, such as whether the child had siblings, and whether they had previously been to a playgroup.

The school upgraded the importance given to home visits and induction, and revised the information booklet to give more information about the educational content of the nursery programme. Teaching and support staff gave more time to the family unit rather than just the child, and a parent link teacher was appointed. Premises were refurbished and converted into a centre for parents.

Edwin was a newly appointed primary-phase headteacher. He introduced pupil perception feedback as part of the working practice of the school. Staff were introduced to the concept, questionnaires were designed, discussed with parents and administered; the results were then discussed in a series of staff meetings.

A group of primary schools used the techniques of reflective practice to raise the professional self-image and confidence of classroom assistants. The project involved establishing school-based “practice development groups” of classroom assistants, to encourage professional conversation and to act as a peer group supporting individual investigation and experimentation. These were supported by senior school leaders. In the cases which worked particularly well, this was because the headteacher had taken direct personal involvement and interest in the activity, had spent time with the classroom assistants, and had actively supported their learning.

Knowledge is power

Research-engaged schools illustrate the old saying that “knowledge is power”. They are more confident about asserting their own educational philosophy and agendas for development; they engage more critically and selectively with top-down initiatives. Their research-engagement draws on external sources of support, but the schools reach a point of maturity where they are the leading partner in those relationships.

School autonomy, like other forms of human autonomy, depends on knowledge – what people find out for themselves, what they learn from other sources, and what they learn about their own options for action.

• Dr Raphael Wilkins is pro director (International Consultancy and Knowledge Transfer) at the Institute of Education, University of London, and president of the College of Teachers. He is author of Research Engagement for School Development. You can order a copy from John Smith’s Education Bookshop on 0207 612 6050 or email


- Anderson, G. and Herr, K. (1999) The new paradigm wars: Is there room for rigorous practitioner knowledge in schools and universities? Educational Researcher, 28(5).
- Epstein, J., Coates, L., Salinas, K., Sanders, M. and Simon, B. (1997) School, Family and Community Partnerships: Your handbook for action. Thousand Oaks: Sage.
- Villa, R. and Thousand, J. (1995) Quality Enhancement of Teaching and Learning: Making the LEAP. Perth: Curtin University of Technology.
- Wilkins, R. (2011) Research Engagement for School Development. London: IOE Press.

This material is protected by MA Education Limited copyright.
See Terms and Conditions.


Please view our Terms and Conditions before leaving a comment.

Change the CAPTCHA codeSpeak the CAPTCHA code
About Us

Headteacher Update is the only magazine delivered directly to every primary school headteacher in the UK. It is published six times a year, at the beginning of each term and half-term, to keep headteachers up-to-date with everything going on in primary education.

Learn more about Headteacher update


Register to receive regular updates on primary education news delivered free to your inbox.